There is a certain magic among trans people simply existing. Just our presence, our reluctance to conform to the constructs around gender that have been instilled in all of us since birth is powerful.
Trans people offer everyone a certain freedom, a permission to exist authentically and embrace all of the innate elements that make us human. They show us it is possible to disregard the arbitrary notion that certain traits, emotions, and expressions are “masculine” or “feminine.”
This is who I always was. I’m just living as that person out loud and unhidden.
At 30, I look back to my childhood and realize that I grappled with this conflict around gender and performance well before I could contextualize my own experience as a nonbinary trans person.
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As a child of the ‘90s, I didn’t have the language to express my relationship with gender. I was friends with all of my classmates until about fifth grade. It’s that fateful age when children begin to self-actualize, notice how others are similar or different from them, and figure out how society expects them to behave with that information in mind.
The group of girls I regularly hung out with in my grade slowly ushered me out of their posse. As their interest in boys began to pique in a new and exciting way, I’m sure having me, a boy, as part of their clique was no longer conducive.
The boys in my class were similarly posturing themselves to perform for the girls, amping up this perception of needed masculinity and toughness as they prepared to enter middle school and adolescence. As essentially the only boy who shamelessly hung out with girls and embraced more “feminine” activities and attributes, it was clear I didn’t fit in with them either.
I came out as queer during my freshman year of high school. In Northern Colorado back in 2007, that was enough of a rarity. I was probably one of less than five out kids, and it put a target on my back.
Within a year, I met Melaina through my school’s gay-straight alliance. We were both 14 and attending a club-sanctioned event, an equality summit with LGBTQ+ speakers. Melaina was the first out trans person I ever met, and even before she shared her identity with me, there was something ethereal about her presence. She carried herself with this immense confidence, an authentic IDGAF attitude that most teenagers only practice as a ploy. But Melaina was the real deal.
And it makes sense. If I felt ostracized as a cis gay boy at my high school, I can’t imagine what she had to go through as an openly trans girl.
We sat next to each other on the bus, and I was in awe of Melaina’s openness and self-assurance. She was brazenly confident and knew exactly what she was about, referencing conflicts with bullies underscored by an unmatched nonchalance that I couldn’t even fathom.
The shackles of gender roles
When I talk about transness and breaking down gender roles, I posture it as being beneficial for all people. It’s the same way I talk about feminism to get men on board — like, “Hey, this is actually good for you, too.”
Humans are immensely complex. I still can’t fathom how so many people still believe that just because someone has specific anatomy or chromosomes (a sentiment that still often conveniently ignores biological sex as a spectrum), they must conform to a single, rigid expression and role. It eliminates so many aspects of what makes us human and minimizes the complexity of the human experience.
I caught onto these expectations early, as my demeanor was much more sensitive, emotional, and “feminine” while I was growing up as a boy. I was just being myself. I didn’t bury the elements that society told me were inappropriate for my gender, and fortunately, my parents didn’t push me to do so.
Since fifth grade — when those gendered differences became abundantly more clear — I’ve often found myself wondering why gender is so important in our world to begin with. What would society look like if we didn’t have these set rules that so many people at such young ages are pressured to conform to?
I especially think of the boys I was surrounded with in my childhood and adolescence who were silly and carefree in elementary school and gradually hardened as they got older.
As a queer and trans adult, I’ve only maintained friendships with two cis straight men, mostly because it’s clear that so many don’t know what to do when they find themselves interacting with me. I can see them processing how they “should” treat me — I’m not a woman, so that’s out the window; and while I may have similar physical features, I’m clearly not a man or at least don’t share that same social experience in the way I present and carry myself.
I can’t imagine how stifling this posturing has to be as someone who threw it out a long time ago. By no means am I saying that all cishet folks subconsciously consider gender so heavily in their interactions, but I witness it often in my day-to-day life.
I see that my existence, and the existence of transgender and gender-nonconforming people as a whole, is often perceived as threatening to the status quo. It’s daunting to those people who never questioned these arbitrary messages, whose identities are deeply confined to these restrictions.
Freedom for all
This conversation often makes me reflect on a statement made by nonbinary poet and activist Alok Vaid-Menon on “The Man Enough” podcast in 2021: “People have been taught to fear the very things that have the potential to set them free.”
In this years-old video that replays in my mind frequently, Vaid-Menon says, “The reason you don’t fight for me is because you’re not fighting for yourself fully. And any movement that’s trying to emancipate men from the shackles of heteropatriarchy, emancipate women from traditional gender ideology, has to have trans and nonbinary people at the forefront because we are actually the most honest. We’re tracing the root.”
I’m not saying that every person is trans or that every cis man or woman must have some sort of latent identity they have yet to address. But when we are taught so aggressively, so consistently to conform to specific expectations based on what a doctor saw between our legs shortly after we entered this world, we are no doubt inhibited from fully embracing ourselves as we are.
I intimately felt it as I tried to cram myself into the ill-fitting “male” label for the bulk of my life – until I saw how other trans and nonbinary people were happily navigating their lives beyond these constraints.
I rejoice, however, when I see the progress among cis men addressing the harms of toxic masculinity. This is evident when we see the many ways cis men today look to unlearn these harmful teachings about how they “should” act in society through workshops, classes, and therapy. I’ve seen groups explicitly made for men to be emotionally vulnerable with one another, to reimagine what modern masculinity even means. Simply allowing themselves to be emotionally mature, to communicate, and to feel is paramount to their personal concept of gender and what it means to be a man. After all, there is an inherent power in vulnerability.
While I tout these wins, it’s impossible to ignore today’s male influencers who relay the same tired, harmful messages of the past — often littered in misogyny, homophobia and transphobia — surrounding “proper” gender roles to their audience of impressionable young boys.
The fight rages on, and the transgender community remains at the forefront.
Trans people should receive support from their cis counterparts because it’s the right thing to do, because we need help from groups in power to ensure equity. But I also hope cis people understand that these constraints around gender that trans folks actively push against every day don’t benefit anyone. They rob us of humanity, authenticity, and connection with one another.
I think about the queer and trans spaces in which I regularly find myself in LA, which of course include cisgender people, too. In these spaces, we can all be whoever we are without a value judgment around our existence.
I witnessed this magic before I came out as trans myself, and while we have a mountain of obstacles to overcome, I find relief in thinking about the world taking on that same model — every person expressing themselves innately as they see fit, with gender roles and restrictions fully off the table.
The trans community has challenged tired notions, these prevailing messages around how we “should” act in society, in favor of our own pursuit of happiness.
This Trans Awareness Week, I hope that our cisgender peers and allies can look to the trans community like I once did, as role models who recognize that this fight belongs to and benefits the entire human race.